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If your coworker shows up late to work every other day because he says every time he goes out, he ends up drinking too much, would you say he has a drinking problem?

Or if your friend says she doesn’t drink anymore but you found alcohol in her car, would you say she has a drinking problem?

According to many health professionals, one person is displaying signs of alcohol abuse and another is displaying signs of alcohol dependence but which one and what exactly are the differences between the two?

Let’s take a closer look at the signs of alcohol abuse vs dependence and how they affect people differently.

Alcohol Abuse vs Dependence: What’s the Difference?

Alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence are two types of alcohol problems categorized by how they affect people.

Alcohol abuse is a problem that affects people when they drink. They have trouble controlling the amount of alcohol they drink and they often drink excessively and engage in what is known as “binge drinking.” Due to this reason, their judgment is impaired and they often end up in trouble.

Alcohol dependence, on the other hand, is an on-going issue that affects a person whether he or she is drinking or not. They are physically addicted to alcohol, think about it often, and when they stop drinking, they display signs of withdrawal.

Another major difference between sufferers of alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence is the frequency at which they drink. A person with alcohol abuse might not necessarily drink all the time but when they do, it can easily get out of control. A person with alcohol dependence, however, is always craving alcohol and they cannot control the cravings.

Now let’s take a look at each of the symptoms for alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence.

Alcohol Abuse

According to the Center for Disease Control, alcohol abuse can be recognized as “a pattern of drinking that results in harm to one’s health, interpersonal relationships, or ability to work.” This means alcohol affects the person in one or more of the following ways:

Harm to One’s health

The person will risk their own health and safety by partaking in dangerous or illegal activities such as drunk driving or unprotected sex.

Interpersonal Relationships

The person might become reckless with their speech or action and hurt others in the process either verbally or physically.

Ability to Work

The person will start ignoring household chores or work responsibilities and jeopardize their roles in the family or at work.

Binge Drinking

A common behavior of people who abuse alcohol is they binge drink which can lead them to alcohol poisoning. Other times, they’ll also black out and have no memories of their actions, including those that hurt other people.

Alcohol Dependence

Alcohol dependence is when someone has a physical addiction to alcohol. It is also sometimes known as alcoholism. Depending on the severity, the person will exhibit different types of withdrawal symptoms when they are not drinking.

Common symptoms of alcohol dependence are:

  • Sweating
  • Nausea
  • Tremors
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability

More severe symptoms include:

  • fever
  • seizures
  • hallucinations
  • severe confusion

One very important distinction to make about people with alcohol dependence and alcohol abuse is their symptoms aren’t always as obvious. Unlike people with alcohol abuse, their symptoms tend to be more subtle, which makes it very dangerous and difficult to recognize.

People who are alcohol dependent also tend to have a higher tolerance for alcohol due to their frequent drinking. They might not display any signs of being drunk at all until after many drinks. However, it doesn’t mean their bodies are receiving any less damage.

Another reason why alcohol dependence tends to be more subtle is that sufferers sometimes prefer to drink alone. Especially if the person has been criticized before for their drinking habit, they might retreat and choose to drink alone.

A person struggling with alcohol addiction cannot see they have a problem or do not think they have a problem at all. And if they do, they might be deeply ashamed of it, therefore, they’ll try their best to hide it until it gets out of control.

Is Alcohol Abuse A Precursor to Alcohol Dependence?

This question is debatable because it depends entirely on the individual person.

Factors that lead to alcohol dependence include the person’s environment. If the person lives in a community where heavy and frequent drinking is seen as normal, then yes, alcohol dependence is much more likely to occur.

Another factor that increases a person’s risk for alcohol dependence is the person’s mental well-being. If the person’s reason for drinking is stress and they never find a healthy way to deal with it, they will continue to drink until the alcohol abuse turns into alcohol dependence.

Alcohol abuse does not always turn into alcohol dependence but if the person never receives help, then it is likely to develop into alcohol dependence once the body becomes addicted to it.

Pay Attention and Save Somebody’s Life

Women who drink more than 4 drinks and men who drink more than 5 drinks per occasion are at a much higher risk for injuries, violence, liver diseases, and cancer.

When left untreated, people who abuse alcohol can end up in deep trouble with the law or in the hospital with irreversible damages to their body. And if they don’t, they might eventually develop alcohol dependence which is hard to treat because it’s a serious addiction.

If someone you love is struggling with alcohol, and you don’t know if it’s severe enough for help, use this checklist to better understand the differences between alcohol abuse vs dependence and see where they fall. Just know that they might react defensively if you confront them, and that might be the biggest sign of all that they have a problem with alcohol.

Need more help or guidance to help you identify alcohol or drug-related problems? Check out our website for more information on how to talk to someone struggling with alcohol and how to get them the help they deserve.